Senators had many questions when the Legislature debated a bill last week that would allow virtual conferencing at public meetings during an emergency.
On March 15, Sen. Mike Flood of Norfolk presented LB83 that would update the Open Meetings Act.
“After the year we had last year with the pandemic, we learned a lot about what the (Open Meetings) Act does and what it prevented and how we can make changes,” Flood said.
The bill would revise the Open Meetings Act to allow public bodies to hold virtual public meetings during an emergency. If passed, this would give city councils, county boards and other political subdivisions the option to use virtual conferencing, which includes telephonic and electronic communication.
Flood said an emergency qualifies as either a declaration from the governor or by a principal executive officer of a local government.
During the pandemic, Gov. Pete Ricketts issued an executive order to temporarily waive certain requirements of the Nebraska Open Meeting Act to allow virtual public meetings.
Currently, virtual meetings can only address existing emergencies. Flood’s bill would also authorize the discussion of regular business at virtual meetings, during a governor-declared emergency.
Flood said the executive order increased public participation in virtual meetings.
“I hear from public bodies that because they were able to conduct some of their meetings on Zoom that it increased public interaction, and I’m pleased to say a lot of public bodies were excited,” Flood said.
The bill protects public access at virtual meetings in a few ways:
- Call-in telephone numbers
- Electronic copies of meeting agendas
- Notice of virtual meetings to news media
- At least one in-person participation site available
The bill would also authorize regional governing authorities like community colleges or board of regents to conduct up to half of meetings virtually, even after the state of emergency ends. Flood said a member’s vote could only count if he or she attended in-person.
Sen. Curt Friesen of Henderson supported the bill but was cautious about future expansion of virtual meetings.
“I support the bill…but I think we need to tread carefully when we’re moving forward about how many meetings we’ll allow this to happen in the future,” Friesen said.
The Government, Military and Veteran Affairs Committee selected Flood’s bill to be its priority bill this session. This means the bill was placed earlier on the legislative debate schedule, ahead of non-priority bills.
“As a result of COVID-19 we had to do business different, and it’s been a long road to get here…LB83 is an important update to our laws and transparency to the public,” said Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon, chairman of the Government, Military and Veteran Affairs Committee.
Sen. Rich Pahls of Omaha supports the transparency of public virtual meetings and asked Flood about expanding all meetings to have virtual options.
“I do think there’s value to having the public’s business be done as much as possible in person, but during an emergency it makes sense,” Flood said. “I don’t think we want to make major change, because like the Legislature, it’s beneficial for us to be here in person and to interact in person.
Senators advanced the bill to the second round of debates with a 48-0 vote.